- Methuen’s Edition:Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession
In Opening his Introduction to Methuen Drama’s new edition of Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893), editor Brad Kent quotes the dramatist’s famous comment on his early banned play to actor Ellen Terry in 1897: “It’s much my best play; but it makes my blood run cold: I can hardly bear the most appalling bits of it. Ah, when I wrote that, I had some nerve.” Kent goes on to suggest that while being one of theatre’s most controversial plays, it is among Shaw’s “best and most performed plays.” And given such an important play, this new student edition offers much to students and scholars alike—and therefore it is most welcome.
The edition prints the definitive text of the play, based primarily on the last authoritative edition published in Shaw’s life—Constable’s 1931 edition of Plays Unpleasant. The play’s text in this new edition is thoroughly annotated with notes on obscure terms, locales, stage directions, and textual differences with Shaw’s manuscripts of the play. The edition also includes a chronology of Shaw’s life and career, a list of abbreviations, and seven appendices that run from Shaw’s review of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, an excerpt from [End Page 576] Guy de Maupassant’s Yvette, excerpts from William Acton’s 1870 medical treaty Prostitution Considered in its Moral Social, and Sanitary Aspects, Shaw’s preface to his play, reviews of early productions of Mrs Warren’s Profession, and variant scenes of the play. All of this contributes to a valuable teaching edition.
Shaw stated in his Preface to Mrs Warren’s Profession that the play was written “to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.… No normal woman would be a professional prostitute if she could better herself by being respectable, nor marry for money if she could afford to marry for love.” Such topics, of course, during the 1890s and for some years that followed, were not only controversial, but also highly scandalous. In fact, Britain’s official theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, banned public performances of the play until 1924. In dealing with Mrs Warren’s profession as a proprietress of brothels, and the advance of Kitty Warren’s daughter Vivie to the plateau of the 1890s New Woman—achieved through the education funded by her mother’s brothels—the play confronts prostitution and the uncomfortable question of incest that prostitution is capable of producing. The incest is raised by the convergence of two former customers of Kitty and their offspring—most notably in the romantic pursuit of Vivie by Frank Gardner, who may well be Vivie’s half brother. All such issues, along with social hypocrisy and the responsibility of the New Woman, are well discussed and considered in Brad Kent’s excellent introduction to the play.
Kent’s introduction first considers Shaw by providing a biographical overview. It traces Shaw’s emergence as a socialist in the 1880s and as a dramatist during the 1890s with his strategy of using “comedy to attract audiences to what was generally perceived to be his unpalatable message.” From 1900 to 1910, Kent states, Shaw “would go on to secure his reputation as the most important living British dramatist.” The Dublin-born Shaw may have preferred a different phrasing than “British dramatist.” Nevertheless, Kent effectively discusses Shaw’s working relationship with Harley Granville Barker, in partnership with J. E. Vedrenne, at the Court Theatre that solidified the New Drama in Britain. The career is then traced to Shaw’s great prewar triumphs, as with Pygmalion, but then Shaw’s decline in popularity when he published Common Sense About the War during the early months of the Great War. The revival of Shaw’s career came...